Like the creation myths they supersede, the revelations of science are seared into our collective imagination through storytelling. From Archimedes' bath to Newton's apple, vivid accounts of scientific discovery help us understand the principles behind each theory, and add to the larger narrative of how the universe works, and how we came to be here. This anthology draws out and distils science's love of narrative from a wide range of scientific disciplines, weaving theory into very human stories, and delving into the humanity of theorists and experimenters as they stood on the brink of momentous discoveries: from Joseph Swan's original light-bulb moment to the uncovering of mirror neurons lighting up empathy zones in the human brain; from Einstein's revelation on a Bern tram, to Pavlov's identification of personality types thanks to a freak flood in his St Petersburg lab. Each story has been written in close consultation with scientists and historians and is accompanied by a specially written afterword, expanding on the science for a general audience. Together, they bring vividly to life the stories behind the 'eureka!' moments that changed the way we live, forever.
Cover art copyright (c) Matt Roeser.
Also featuring stories by Annie Clarkson, Tania Hershman, Trevor Hoyle, Michael Jecks, Zoe Lambert, Sean O'Brien, Christine Poulson, Emma Jane Unsworth, Adam Marek, Sara Maitland, Alison MacLeod, and Jane Rogers. Plus afterwords by Prof Jim Al-Khalili, Prof Martyn Amos, Dr. Robert Appleby, John Clayson, Prof Matthew Cobb, Sarah Fox, Kathryn Harris, James Higgerson, Dr. Nick R. Love, Dr. Tim O'Brien, Prof Denis Noble, Prof Giacomo Rizzolatti, Dr. Zoe Schnepp, Dr. James Sumner, Dr. Angharad Watson and Dr. John Wearden.
"An inspiring tribute to inquiring minds." (The Guardian)
What members say
- Chloe Fox
Dull and pretentious
So I've done a few hours of litmus book and it's Just dull. It's like having to Listen to a pretentious old uncle wittering on about a historical event in his life that no one else
Has any interest in. Which is odd because I am interested in science, Maybe I'm not enough of a scientist to enjoy it or take any delight from the story content. The narrator also has a creepy demeanour and I found myself zoning out.
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- Rachel Redford
The idea is better than the execution
It seems an intriguing idea to commission 17 well respected authors to write a short story illustrating great moments in the history of science from seventeenth century astronomy to the Periodic Table, 20th century theory of Inclusive Fitness and DNA, and 21st century AIDS in South Sudan. Each story is accompanied by an Afterword in which a specialist in the scientific field of the story gives a clear explanation of the Light Bulb moment involved in the science.
What really bothered me was - who was Litmus written for? The simplicity of the Afterwards make me think it's not for scientists, (although scientists aren't specialists in all fields), so it must be for the intelligent general reader / listener with a lively interest in science who may be either familiar with the bare bones of - or completely unfamiliar with - the science. But that audience is unlikely to be impressed or engrossed by the stories which on the whole are cumbersome in their inclusion of chunks of undigested science ('I fractionalised our radium isotopes' says one character) with characters who are mere awkward mouthpieces for scientific fact rather than real people.
There are some exceptions, but very few. There are some great scenes - Pavlov's dogs drowning in their cages in St Petersburg when the Neva overflows; the fluorescent and luminescent jellyfish (accompanied by an interesting Afterword on the proteins which produce the glow); the doctor in Africa struggling with yet another baby's death from AIDS. I found only two of the stories worked as complete stories and not merely vehicles for their scientific message. Maggie Gee's Life with Insects combined the theory with real life in the account of Lisa abandoned by her father during her A Level year, and Kate Clancy's Bridehill is a chilling and insightful story of a wife who knows her husband's Alzheimer's is erasing his memory. In these the science is woven in effectively.
I think it was just too difficult to make fiction AND mini science lectures successful. I nearly gave up on it, but I struggled on and am glad that I did. It may not be great, but there's plenty of interest and ideas along avenues you may not usually explore.
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